What kind of reformation?
People are crying out for reformasi — reformation. It was the slogan of the students who brought about the downfall of President Suharto after more than thirty years in power. In their hearts, many people feel that there must be something better than what has been. They cry out against ‘corruption, collusion and nepotism’. They pin their yearnings and aspirations on one political leader or another: Habibie (the new president), Megawati (daughter of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno), and so on.
But what is reformation? What will truly satisfy people’s hearts? Can one man achieve it? After the tragic end of famous Old Testament leader, King Uzziah of Judah, the Chronicler adds a sombre note to the story of the good progress of his successor Jotham: ‘The people, however, continued their corrupt practices’ (2 Chronicles 27:2).
Nationally, there is no doubt that economic and political reform is needed. The economic crisis began last year but increased in intensity in 1998. The rupiah plunged to about 1/6 of its previous value against the US dollar, rising again slightly to about 1/5. As a result, very many companies are totally unable to pay their overseas-related debts, and have either collapsed or will soon do so. The banking sector is in deep trouble. Many people have lost their income, and the International Labour Organisation has estimated that currently around 15,000 are being put out of work every day. By next year, they say, two-thirds of the total population will be below the official poverty line.
The economic crisis precipitated a deepening political crisis, and some truly terrible and tragic events occurred in May. The vigorous but peaceful student demonstrations against the government and Suharto, gave way to violence in Jakarta and elsewhere, especially Java. From 13-15 May, riots flared, during which many shops, offices and other properties, mostly Chinese, were looted and burned. Hundreds of charred bodies, including many of the rioters themselves, were found in the ruins. Then reports emerged that, during this period, around 168 women (nearly all Chinese) had been attacked and raped in the cruellest possible way in front of their distraught families, with a number being killed afterwards. Further attacks have happened since then.
On 21 May, Suharto felt compelled to resign as president and hand over to his deputy, B. J. Habibie. The new president has taken a number of steps to try to deal with the economic crisis and to liberalize the political scene. These include allowing new political parties and releasing political prisoners. He has begun negotiations on East Timor. And he has professed his profound regret for the shocking events of May. But student demands for further reformation have swelled again, and desperate voices demanding food price reductions have been increasingly and disturbingly heard.
The effect of these events on the Chinese population can be imagined. Many Christians are drawn from the Chinese communities, and there are large Chinese churches in Jakarta and Java. These are not the only attacks on Chinese and on Christians in recent times. Beginning with a series of attacks in Surabaya in 1996, the last two years have seen an unprecedented escalation of persecution. These have involved Chinese churches but have been much wider than that, including, for instance, denominations of Batak ethnic groups. Church buildings have been ransacked and burnt, but in one case a pastor and his family were burnt to death inside their house. FKKI (Indonesian Christian Communication Forum: ‘Is this our independence?’) has provided statistics of the number of attacks on churches, showing an exponential increase over the decades since national independence in 1945.
1945-54: 0 attacks.
1995 – Nov. 97: 121.
Of these persecutions, the largest number is in East Java (116 churches), followed by West Java (86) and Central Java (45), and then South Sulawesi (37). Nor have the attacks ceased since November 1997.
The Christian church therefore faces enormous challenges. As well as the urgent task of preaching the gospel, how is the church to relate to the struggles of the nation? How is it to strive for release from the endemic trio of corruption, collusion and nepotism? How can it respond to the urgent humanitarian needs of those who have lost their livelihood and face mounting debts and starvation? And, most crucially, how can it forgive, and exhibit the love of Christ towards, those that have attacked, raped and even killed its members? Christ’s church in Indonesia very much needs the prayers and support of the international church at this time of trial.
It has to be said that not all the church is ready for such severe challenges. One of the largest denominations has been embroiled in a bitter leadership dispute for most of this decade. This has brought fighting between members, and is still unresolved. A number of other churches have had similar problems. Another large denomination has been in the news on account of scandals involving selling off church property in allegedly irregular ways.
Yet indigenous cross-cultural ministry is starting to grow, and there is enormous need and scope for it amongst Indonesia’s varied islands. Some churches have been responding with food and practical aid to those who are in need. While missionaries from outside the country are still welcomed by the churches, especially for teaching and training ministries, many feel that their role is to be partners with indigenous ministers of the gospel, serving together with the local churches.
One story encapsulates a need of the hour. A girl who had been involved in the attacks on a certain church in Java was brought to justice. The church minister was called as a witness. In his testimony he stated that his members had forgiven the girl, because they themselves had received forgiveness of their sins in the Lord Jesus. He then asked for the accused to be given the lightest possible sentence. Hearing this, the girl wept with deep emotion. She was sentenced to seven months, reduced by time already served. In prison she was visited by the minister and his wife, and frequently by a lady from the congregation. After release from prison she visited the minister’s house, and has personally sought Jesus Christ as her Lord and Saviour.
Indeed, it is the love of Christ expressed in this kind of costly way which would make a real difference for the witness of the whole church in Indonesia in this time of crisis. Nothing less than the reformation of our hearts and lives to love and to forgive, in the way that Christ has done for us, can heal the nation’s terrible wounds. Only this will provide the potent witness that is needed, to the message of the Scriptures concerning the grace of God in Jesus Christ.